Audubon Gallery

Avian Society Audubon Gallery

Canada Jay

Yellow Breasted Warbler

Great Blue Heron


Audubon developed his methods for drawing birds. First, he killed them using a fine shot. He then used wires to prop them into a natural position, unlike the common method of many ornithologists, who prepared and stuffed the specimens into a rigid pose. When working on a major specimen like an eagle, he would spend up to four 15-hour days, preparing, studying, and drawing it. His paintings of birds are set true to life in their natural habitat. He often portrayed them as if caught in motion, especially feeding or hunting. This was in stark contrast to the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson. Audubon based his paintings on his extensive field observations. He worked primarily with watercolor early on. He added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. He employed multiple layers of watercolor and sometimes used gouache. All species were drawn in life-size size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds as Audubon strove to fit them within the page size. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers. He used several birds in a drawing to present all views of anatomy and wings. Larger birds were often placed in their ground habitat or perched on stumps. At times, as with woodpeckers, he combined several species on one page to offer contrasting features. He frequently depicted the birds' nests and eggs, and occasionally natural predators, such as snakes. He usually illustrated male and female variations, and sometimes juveniles. In later drawings, Audubon used assistants to render the habitat for him. In addition to faithful renderings of anatomy, Audubon also employed carefully constructed composition, drama, and slightly exaggerated poses to achieve artistic as well as scientific effects.


John James Audubon (born Jean-Jacques Rabin, April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851) was a French-American self-trained artist, naturalist, and ornithologist. His combined interests in art and ornithology turned into a plan to make a complete pictorial record of all the bird species of North America. He was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations, which depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book titled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon is also known for identifying 25 new species. He is the eponym of the National Audubon Society, and his name adorns a large number of towns, neighborhoods, and streets across the United States. Dozens of scientific names first published by Audubon are still in use by the scientific community.

Audubon was born in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on his father's sugarcane plantation. He was the son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer (and privateer) from the south of Brittany, and his mistress, Jeanne Rabine, a 27-year-old chambermaid from Les Touches, Brittany (now in the modern region Pays de la Loire). They named him Jean Rabin. Another 1887 biographer has stated that his mother was a lady from a Louisiana plantation. His mother died when he was a few months old, as she had suffered from tropical disease since arriving on the island. His father already had an unknown number of mixed-race children (among them a daughter named Marie-Madeleine), some by his mixed-race housekeeper, Catherine "Sanitte" Bouffard (described as a quadroon, meaning she was three-quarters European in ancestry). Following Jeanne Rabin's death, Audubon renewed his relationship with Sanitte Bouffard and had a daughter, named Muguet. Bouffard also took care of the infant boy Jean.

The senior Audubon had commanded ships. During the American Revolution, he was imprisoned by Britain. After his release, he helped the American cause. He had long worked to save money and secure his family's future with real estate. Due to repeated uprisings of slaves in the Caribbean, he sold part of his plantation in Saint-Domingue in 1789 and purchased a 284-acre farm called Mill Grove, 20 miles from Philadelphia, to diversify his investments. Increasing tension in Saint-Domingue between the colonists and slaves, who greatly outnumbered them, convinced the senior Audubon to return to France, where he became a member of the French Republican Guard. In 1788 he arranged for Jean and in 1791 for Muguet to be transported to France.

The children were raised in Couëron, near Nantes, France, by Audubon and his French wife, Anne Moynet Audubon, whom he had married years before his time in Saint-Domingue. In 1794 they formally adopted both the children to regularize their legal status in France. They renamed the boy Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon and the girl Rose.

From his earliest days, the younger Audubon had an affinity for birds. "I felt an intimacy with them...bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life." His father encouraged his interest in nature:

He would point out the elegant movement of the birds, and the beauty and softness of their plumage. He called my attention to their show of pleasure or sense of danger, their perfect forms and splendid attire. He would speak of their departure and return with the seasons.

In France during the years of the French Revolution and its aftermath, Audubon grew up to be a handsome and gregarious man. He played flute and violin and learned to ride, fence, and dance.  Audubon enjoyed roaming in the woods, often returning with natural curiosities, including birds' eggs and nests, of which he made crude drawings. His father planned to make a seaman of his son. At twelve, Audubon went to military school and became a cabin boy. He quickly found out that he was susceptible to seasickness and not fond of mathematics or navigation. After failing the officer's qualification test, Audubon ended his incipient naval career. He returned to exploring fields again, focusing on birds.

Immigration to the United States

In 1803, his father obtained a false passport so that Jean-Jacques could go to the United States to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. 18-year-old Jean-Jacques boarded the ship, anglicizing his name to John James Audubon. Jean Audubon and Claude Rozier arranged a business partnership for their sons John James Audubon and Jean Ferdinand Rozier to pursue lead mining in Pennsylvania at Audubon's Pennsylvania property of Mill Grove. The Audubon-Rozier partnership was based on Rozier's buying half of Jean Audubon's share of a plantation in Haiti, and lending money to the partnership as secured by half interest in the lead mining.

Audubon caught yellow fever upon arrival in New York City. The ship's captain placed him in a boarding house run by Quaker women who nursed Audubon to recovery and taught him English. He traveled with the family's Quaker lawyer to the Audubon family farm at Mill Grove. The 284-acre (115 ha) homestead is located on Perkiomen Creek a few miles from Valley Forge.

Audubon lived with the tenants in the two-story stone house, in an area that he considered a paradise. "Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them." Studying his surroundings, Audubon quickly learned the ornithologist's rule, which he wrote down as, "The nature of the place—whether high or low, moist or dry, whether sloping north or south or bearing tall trees or low shrubs—generally gives hint as to its inhabitants."

His father hoped that the lead mines on the property could be commercially developed, as lead was an essential component of bullets. This could provide his son with a profitable occupation.  At Mill Grove, Audubon met the owner of the nearby Fatland Ford estate, William Bakewell, and his daughter Lucy Bakewell.

Audubon set about to study American birds, determined to illustrate his findings more realistically than most artists did then.  He began drawing and painting birds and recording their behavior. After an accidental fall into a creek, Audubon contracted a severe fever. He was nursed and recovered at Fatland Ford, with Lucy at his side.

Risking conscription in France, Audubon returned in 1805 to see his father and ask permission to marry. He also needed to discuss family business plans. While there, he met the naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D'Orbigny, who improved Audubon's taxidermy skills and taught him scientific methods of research. Although his return ship was overtaken by an English privateer, Audubon and his hidden gold coins survived the encounter.

Audubon resumed his bird studies and created his nature museum, perhaps inspired by the great Museum of Natural History created by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. Peale's bird exhibits were considered scientifically advanced. Audubon's room was brimming with birds' eggs, stuffed raccoons and opossums, fish, snakes, and other creatures. He had become proficient at specimen preparation and taxidermy.

Deeming the mining venture too risky, with his father's approval Audubon sold part of the Mill Grove farm, including the house and mine, and retained some land for investment.

In 1808, Audubon moved to Kentucky, which was rapidly being settled. Six months later, he married Lucy Bakewell at her family estate, Fatland Ford, Pennsylvania, and took her the next day to Kentucky. The two shared many common interests and began to explore the natural world around them. Though their finances were tenuous, the Audubon started a family. They had two sons, Victor Gifford (1809–1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–1862), and two daughters who died while still young, Lucy at two years (1815–1817) and Rose at nine months (1819–1820). Both sons eventually helped publish their father's works. John W. Audubon became a naturalist, writer, and painter in his own right.

Starting in business

Audubon and Jean Ferdinand Rozier moved their merchant business partnership west at various stages, ending ultimately in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, a former French colonial settlement west of the Mississippi River and south of St. Louis. Shipping goods ahead, Audubon and Rozier started a general store in Louisville, Kentucky on the Ohio River; the city had an increasingly important slave market and was the most important port between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Soon he was drawing bird specimens again. He regularly burned his earlier efforts to force continuous improvement. He also took detailed field notes to document his drawings.

Due to rising tensions with the British, President Jefferson ordered an embargo on British trade in 1808, hurting Audubon's trading business. In 1810, Audubon moved his business further west to the less competitive Henderson, Kentucky, area. He and his small family took over an abandoned log cabin. In the fields and forests, Audubon wore typical frontier clothes and moccasins, having "a ball pouch, a buffalo horn filled with gunpowder, a butcher knife, and a tomahawk on his belt".

He frequently turned to hunting and fishing to feed his family, as business was slow. On a prospecting trip down the Ohio River with a load of goods, Audubon joined up with Shawnee and Osage hunting parties, learning their methods, drawing specimens by the bonfire, and finally parting "like brethren". Audubon had great respect for Native Americans: "Whenever I meet Indians, I feel the greatness of our Creator in all its splendor, for there I see the man naked from His hand and yet free from acquired sorrow." Audubon also admired the skill of Kentucky riflemen and the "regulators", citizen lawmen who created a kind of justice on the Kentucky frontier. In his travel notes, he claims to have encountered Daniel Boone. The Audubon family owned several slaves while he was in Henderson until they needed money at which point they were sold. Audubon was condemned contemporaneously by abolitionists. Audubon was dismissive of abolitionists in both the US and the United Kingdom.

Audubon and Rozier mutually agreed to end their partnership at Ste. Genevieve on April 6, 1811. Audubon had decided to work in ornithology and art and wanted to return to Lucy and their son in Kentucky. Rozier agreed to pay Audubon US$3,000 (equivalent to $52,764 in 2022), with $1,000 in cash and the balance to be paid over time.

The terms of the dissolution of the partnership include those by Audubon:

I John Audubon, having this day mutual consent with Ferdinand Rozier, dissolved and forever closed the partnership and firm of Audubon and Rozier, and having Received from said Ferdinand Rozier payment and notes to the full amount of my part of the goods and debts of the late firm of Audubon and Rozier, I the said John Audubon one of the firm aforesaid do hereby release and forever quit claim to all and any interest which I have or may have in the stock on hand and debts due to the late firm of Audubon and Rozier assign, transfer and set over to said Ferdinand Rozier, all my rights, titles, claims and interest in the goods, merchandise and debts due to the late firm of Audubon and Rozier, and do hereby authorize and empower him for my part, to collect the same in any manner what ever either privately or by suit or suits in law or equity hereby declaring him sole and absolute proprietor and rightful owner of all goods, merchandise and debts of this firm aforesaid, as completely as they were the goods and property of the late firm Audubon and Rozier.

During a visit to Philadelphia in 1812 following Congress' declaration of war against Great Britain, Audubon became an American citizen and had to give up his French citizenship. After his return to Kentucky, he found that rats had eaten his entire collection of more than 200 drawings. After weeks of depression, he took to the field again, determined to redo his drawings to an even higher standard.

The War of 1812 upset Audubon's plans to move his business to New Orleans. He formed a partnership with Lucy's brother and built up their trade in Henderson. Between 1812 and the Panic of 1819, times were good. Audubon bought land and slaves, founded a flour mill, and enjoyed his growing family. After 1819, Audubon went bankrupt and was thrown into jail for debt. The little money he earned was from drawing portraits, particularly death-bed sketches, greatly esteemed by country folk before photography. He wrote, "My heart was sorely heavy, for scarcely had I enough to keep my dear ones alive; and yet through these dark days I was being led to the development of the talents I loved."

The Birds of America

With his wife's support, in 1826 at age 41, Audubon took his growing collection of work to England. He sailed from New Orleans to Liverpool on the cotton-hauling ship Delos, reaching England in the autumn of 1826 with his portfolio of over 300 drawings. With letters of introduction to prominent Englishmen and paintings of imaginary species including the "Bird of Washington", Audubon gained their quick attention. "I have been received here in a manner not to be expected during my highest enthusiastic hopes."

The British could not get enough of Audubon's images of backwoods America and its natural attractions. He met with great acceptance as he toured around England and Scotland, and was lionized as "the American woodsman". He raised enough money to begin publishing his The Birds of America. This monumental work consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates of various sizes depending on the size of the image. They were printed on sheets measuring about 39 by 26 inches (990 by 660 mm). The work illustrates slightly more than 700 North American bird species, of which some were based on specimens collected by fellow ornithologist John Kirk Townsend on his journey across America with Thomas Nuttall in 1834 as part of Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth's second expedition across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The pages were organized for artistic effect and contrasting interests as if the reader were taking a visual tour. (Some critics thought he should have organized the plates in Linnaean order as befitting a "serious" ornithological treatise.) The first and perhaps most famous plate was the wild turkey. Among the earliest plates printed was the "Bird of Washington", which generated favorable publicity for Audubon as his first discovery of a new species. However, no specimen of the species has ever been found, and research published in 2020 suggests that this plate was a mixture of plagiarism and ornithological fraud.

The cost of printing the entire work was $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today), paid for from advance subscriptions, exhibitions, oil painting commissions, and animal skins, which Audubon hunted and sold. Audubon's great work was a remarkable accomplishment. It took more than 14 years of field observations and drawings, plus his single-handed management and promotion of the project to make it a success. A reviewer wrote,

All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in its beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but over prudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, had been disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men.

Colorists applied each color in assembly-line fashion (over fifty were hired for the work). The original edition was engraved in aquatint by Robert Havell Jr., who took over the task after the first ten plates engraved by W. H. Lizars were deemed inadequate. Known as the Double Elephant folio for its double elephant paper size, it is often regarded as the greatest picture book ever produced and the finest aquatint work. By the 1830s the aquatint process had been largely superseded by lithography. A contemporary French critic wrote, "A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle ... It is a real and palpable vision of the New World."

Audubon sold oil-painted copies of the drawings to make extra money and publicize the book. A potential publisher had Audubon's portrait painted by John Syme, who clothed the naturalist in frontier clothes; the portrait was hung at the entrance of his exhibitions, promoting his rustic image. The painting is now held in the White House art collection and is not frequently displayed. The New York Historical Society holds all 435 of the preparatory watercolors for The Birds of America. Lucy Audubon sold them to the society after her husband's death. All but 80 of the original copper plates were melted down when Lucy Audubon, desperate for money, sold them for scrap to the Phelps Dodge Corporation.

King George IV was among the avid fans of Audubon and subscribed to support the publication of the book. Britain's Royal Society recognized Audubon's achievement by electing him as a fellow. He was the second American to be elected after statesman Benjamin Franklin. While in Edinburgh to seek subscribers for the book, Audubon gave a demonstration of his method of supporting birds with wire at Professor Robert Jameson's Wernerian Natural History Association. Student Charles Darwin was in the audience. Audubon also visited the dissecting theatre of the anatomist Robert Knox. Audubon was also successful in France, gaining the King and several of the nobility as subscribers.

The Birds of America became very popular during Europe's Romantic era. Audubon's dramatic portraits of birds appealed to people in this period's fascination with natural history.

Audubon returned to America in 1829 to complete more drawings for his magnum opus. He also hunted animals and shipped the valued skins to British friends. He was reunited with his family. After settling business affairs, Lucy accompanied him back to England. Audubon found that during his absence, he had lost some subscribers due to the uneven quality of the coloring of the plates. Others were in arrears in their payments. His engraver fixed the plates and Audubon reassured subscribers, but a few begged off. He responded, "The Birds of America will then raise in value as much as they are now depreciated by certain fools and envious persons." He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1830 and to the American Philosophical Society in 1831.

He followed The Birds of America with a sequel Ornithological Biographies. This was a collection of life histories of each species written by Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. The two books were printed separately to avoid a British law requiring copies of all publications with text to be deposited in copyright libraries, a huge financial burden for the self-published Audubon. Both books were published between 1827 and 1839.

During the 1830s, Audubon continued making expeditions in North America. During a trip to Key West, a companion wrote in a newspaper article, "Mr. Audubon is the most enthusiastic and indefatigable man I ever knew ... Mr. Audubon was neither dispirited by heat, fatigue, or bad luck ... he rose every morning at 3 o'clock and went out ... until 1 o'clock." Then he would draw the rest of the day before returning to the field in the evening, a routine he kept up for weeks and months. In the posthumously published book The Life of John James Audubon The Naturalist, edited by his widow and derived primarily from his notes, Audubon related visiting the northeastern Florida coastal sugar plantation of John Joachim Bulow for Christmas 1831/early January 1832. It was started by his father and at 4,675 acres, was the largest in East Florida. Bulow had a sugar mill built there under the direction of a Scottish engineer, who accompanied Audubon on an excursion in the region. The mill was destroyed in 1836 in the Seminole Wars. The plantation site is preserved today as the Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park.

In March 1832, Audubon booked passage at St. Augustine, Florida, aboard the schooner Agnes, bound for Charleston, South Carolina. A gale forced the vessel to berth at the mouth of the Savannah River, where an officer of the United States Army Corps of Engineers on Cockspur Island where Fort Pulaski was under construction, transported Audubon upstream to Savannah, Georgia, on their barge. Just as he was about to board a Charleston-bound stage coach, he remembered William Gaston, a Savannah resident who had once befriended him. Audubon stayed at City Hotel, and the next day sought out and found the acquaintance, "who showed but little enthusiasm for his Birds of America" and who doubted that the book would sell a single copy in the city. A dejected Audubon continued to talk to the merchant and a mutual friend who, by chance, had appeared. The merchant, having further considered his position, said, "I subscribe to your work", gave him $200 for the first volume, and promised to act as his agent in finding additional subscriptions.

In 1833, Audubon sailed north from Maine, accompanied by his son John, and five other young colleagues, to explore the ornithology of Labrador. On the return voyage, their ship Ripley made a stop at St. George's, Newfoundland. There Audubon and his assistants documented 36 species of birds.

Audubon painted some of his works while staying at the Key West house and gardens of Capt. John H. Geiger. This site was preserved as the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens.

In 1841, having finished the Ornithological Biographies, Audubon returned to the United States with his family. He bought an estate on the Hudson River in northern Manhattan. (The roughly 20-acre estate came to be known as Audubon Park in the 1860s when Audubon's widow began selling off parcels of the estate for the development of free-standing single-family homes.) Between 1840 and 1844, he published an octavo edition of The Birds of America, with 65 additional plates. Printed in standard format to be more affordable than the oversized British edition, it earned $36,000 and was purchased by 1100 subscribers. Audubon spent much time on "subscription-gathering trips", drumming up sales of the Octavo edition, as he hoped to leave his family a sizeable income.

Audubon made some excursions out West where he hoped to record Western species he had missed, but his health began to fail. In 1848, he manifested signs of senility or possibly dementia from what is now called Alzheimer's disease, his "noble mind in ruins". He died at his family home in northern Manhattan on January 27, 1851. Audubon is buried in the graveyard at the Church of the Intercession in the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum at 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, near his home. An imposing monument in his honor was erected at the cemetery, which is now recognized as part of the Heritage Rose District of NYC.

Audubon's final work dealt with mammals; he prepared The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–1849) in collaboration with his good friend Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina, who supplied much of the scientific text. His son, John Woodhouse Audubon, drew most of the plates. The work was completed by Audubon's sons, and the second volume was published posthumously in 1851.

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